Monday, May 9, 2011

All Theatre is Cosmology

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, August Schulenburg.

When asking me to contribute to this blog, Shay passed on a series of thoughtful questions regarding the OOB/Indie theatre scene that I might tackle. Perhaps because I’ve recently been thinking about Big History, or because I was given Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for my recent birthday (“he who does not know what the world is does not know where he is”); I found myself unable to consider those imminently sensible questions without tracing their roots a good distance backwards in time and space.

So, I hope you will patiently bear with me as I consider the history of the universe, the (potentially preposterous) possibility that we are alive at the beginning of a significant hinge in that history, and the proposition that all theatre is cosmology.

(Warning: this may be a slalom run of sort, as the snow of my knowledge is not deeply packed; expect an uneven descent of sharp turns, sudden moguls and occasional wipe outs.)

I’ll be considering four systems - the universe, life, consciousness, and technology – each which emerged unexpectedly from the system before. I’ll be talking about these systems as if they were distinct, because it is their differences that interest me; even as I acknowledge the evolutionary principles that drive them make no such distinction.

Specifically, what are the different relationships of these systems to change, loss and time?

From my anthropic perch, the universe’s relationship doesn’t look particularly good. The universe may preserve information, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics and asymmetry of time lock much of it away in the swelling black box of the past. And though we are lucky that our little solar system has been granted a brief respite from the general pounding of pulsars, the likely future passing of the universe into heat death gives cold comfort.

In short, it is a system that seems unconcerned with its own preservation: stars collapse, black holes devour light, quantum foam keeps the cold nothing of space restless, and everything falls away from itself.

However, something strange happened on our meteor-battered, molten-cored, water-soaked rock. A series of random chemical interactions resisted giving up the ghost. These chemical interactions began to sustain themselves for as long as they could; and then found a way to pass on the how-to manual to other chemical interactions. The reproduction of that genetic code was luckily imperfect, for through those imperfections the green fuse of evolution drove the flower.

Here, in contrast to the universe, is a system not only concerned with its own preservation, but defined by it. Every dizzyingly baroque stroke of life’s invention is governed by self-preservation; not of the individual creature, of course; but of that brilliantly flexible chemical code that brings birds, bees, and even educated trees to do what they do. The system of life uses loss (our dread friend death) to manifest change (Darwin, finches) to ensure the information of life’s genetic code persists through time.

Now it gets even stranger: just as the universe accidentally manifested a system with a different relationship to loss, change and time; consciousness (all Athena-like) surprisingly emerged from life. It must have seemed like such a good idea to life at the time: a self-aware creature might be more likely to persist and pass on that precious code. But like an ungrateful child, consciousness refuses to go into the family business.

Because while death is necessary to life, it is antithetical to consciousness. Consciousness is less interested in furthering the adaptive capacity of the genetic code, and a whole lot more interested in continuing its own particular existence. Consciousness has a far more adversarial relationship to change, loss and time than the two systems that contain it. But like life, it has its own unique way of persisting.

The genetic code of consciousness is passed down through culture: in the same way that DNA is a map for the building of a body, culture is a map for the building of a mind. And theatre – ah, theatre, we’ve finally reached it! – is one of the earliest technologies consciousness created to perpetuate those instructions.

Now, (of course) you remember that technology was the fourth and final system I listed at the beginning of this post, all those years ago. Because in the same way that consciousness emerged from life, technology is emerging from consciousness; and though currently technology remains under the firm control of its creator, we are approaching a hinge moment.

To appreciate that moment, remember that theatre, as the first storytelling technology, uses human beings as its primary medium. Because of this, it is subject to the rules that govern the systems of life and consciousness. A play happens the same way only once, and after that, lives only in our treacherous memories. Theatre is made of time, loss and change.

But then came the printed word (which Socrates warned us against!), then photography, then audio recordings, then video, then computers, then the internet; all of these and other technologies defying the idea that anything should be lost, that anything should change. You don’t have to imagine what Elvis sounded like based on the stories of those who saw him; you can see him and hear him yourself; and so, if things continue as they are, can your great-great-grand children. We are all cyborgs now; our memories a Google away from recalling anything.

When compared to life and consciousness, the evolution of technology is progressing at an extremely rapid rate. And while it may seem that technology remains just a tool of consciousness, I believe we are at the edge of it transforming into something as distinct from us as we are from trees, and trees from rocks.

While I’m not entirely on board with Kurzweil’s Singularity, I do think we are in the process of creating a system that completely rewrites the rules of change, loss and time. The chance that we’ll understand that system on a fundamental level is as likely as an oak chatting with a chimpanzee.

Like so many of my species, I am inclined to treat the time of my life as uniquely important to the history of the world, and so you should take the above with several grains of salt. However, I’m of the generation that remembers Pong and typewriters, and so perhaps feel the g-force of this coaster particularly keenly.  

And so, finding ourselves at this hinge of history; bound within the systems of life and the universe, poised on the edge of a fourth emergence; what should our conscious minds do to answer Aurelius’ question? What should such creatures as we do, crawling between earth and the internet?

For now, my answer remains primarily theatre; as it remains the most human way to wrestle with our questions of loss, change and time. But more on exactly how and why tomorrow, where I promise our flight will gradually nose down towards more earth bound conceits.


  1. Liz duffy AdamsMay 9, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    "Theatre is made of time, loss and change." What a thrilling post! I look forward to tomorrow.

  2. I think the crucial issue, which you touch on, is that theatre, in its temporality and transcience, can embody death and change, in a way that digital technology, in it's apparent capacity for deathlessness, cannot. This idea has some depth to it, and potential uses in practical and artistic terms, and it also has the potential to affect the way we understand memory, communication and life itself. Please continue.

  3. Your system analysis makes perfect sense to me, as it operates along the same lines, I take heed from in my theater making. As you do, I sense we are at a very exciting moment in time, not only for theater, but also for the other systems mentioned.
    In the company I work with here in Copenhagen, Teater 770° Celsius, we have based our working- and performance method on a combination of the science of self-organizing critical systems, re-interpretation of classic dramaturgy as dynamic principles and basic acting techniques. This has been done based on the simple question: What is the unique value of theater as a system?
    Should you be interested we have one article written in English about the resulting analysis - The Theater in a Critical State - while the rest of our written material is yet only in Danish. It could be exciting to engage in an ongoing discussion of this perspective.